Bacterial Imaginations: Regime of the Microscope in the 1950s People’s Republic of China

This event has passed.

University Club, Room 212
@ 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm

Image of poster from 1952 with Chinese characters appearing in red at the top, a hairy hand dressed in a shirt made from an American flag with a rat on top being cut by a knife, and a swarm of flying insects being fumigated.
Image: Poster created as part of an inoculation campaign, designer unknown, 1951-1952, titled: “Resolutely cut off the bloody and criminal hand of the American aggressor that spreads germs!.” Image credits: Text on the hilt of the bayonet: “Chinese and Korean People’s Armies” (Zhong Chao Renmin Jun – 中朝人民军). On the insecticide sprayer: “Peace-loving people of the world” (Quan shijie aihao heping de renmin – 全世界爱好和平的⼈人民).

Monday Seminar:

Lu Liu

Dana-Allen Dissertation Fellow (2018-2019)

Asian Languages and Cultures, UW-Madison


Seeing the enemy was crucial in the early 1950s People’s Republic of China (PRC). Domestic consolidation by the new regime targeted spies, counterrevolutionaries, and bourgeois ideology, hidden yet harmful elements that threatened the health of the new body politic. Meanwhile, the allegation that the United States was using biological weapons in the Korean War brought the PRC to an unexpected encounter with germs, reinforcing the urgency to see, pinpoint, and annihilate the bacterial enemies.

This talk examines the role of the microscope in enabling the power of seeing the enemy in the 1952 anti-germ warfare campaign. Widely used for science education and mass mobilization of the campaign, the microscope visualized, magnified, and exposed the bacteria and by doing so inculcated a mode of seeing that was at once scientific and political. On the other hand, microscopic images of bacteria also triggered imaginations uncontained in the state’s discourse of national security. Understanding the microscope as both an emerging mechanism of hygienic visuality in socialist China and an apparatus of power that produces the socialist subject, I trace the affective ramifications of the microscope from the early twentieth century to the 1950s, and explore how modern China’s traumatic past with diseases and imperialism was projected unto an affirmative image of the new China within and through the logic of visual abjection. By attending to where the regime of the microscope cracks, this talk rethinks the abject and the disavowed in the early PRC’s various purification campaigns. Theoretically, this talk also engages with the agency of the nonhuman—optical technology and microbes—as a formative aspect of socialist subjectivity.


Lu Liu is a Ph.D. candidate in modern Chinese literature and visual culture and a Dana-Allen dissertation fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research broadly examines the interplay of subject formation, visual practices, and science and technology. She is completing her dissertation, “Away/With the Pest: Hygienic Visuality and Narrations of the Interspecies Encounter in Modern China,” that reconsiders the “pest” as a formative aspect of the socialist subjectivity. Her future research projects include a media archaeology of techno-medical visions of the body produced by cine-microscopy, the X-ray, anatomy images, and forensic photography in modern China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and an oral history project of families relocated to Guizhou Province during the Maoist Third Front Campaign (sanxian jianshe).